Maybe it’s because everyone I know is popping out Mini-Mes, but I’ve been dwelling lately on the use of the child as metaphor. On the one hand, when someone says or does something that is crass, selfish, or insensitive, or if someone believes something that is naive, wishful, or detached from reality, we call it “childish.” On the other hand, if someone exhibits an unusual enthusiasm, generosity of spirit, or imagination, we might be inclined to praise that person for their childlike demeanor and optimism. This clearly speaks to the duel merits and demerits of youth. We may admire or even envy the capacity of a 7-year-old to make an imaginary friend out of a camp fire (she calls her “Frances the Fire”), but we fear the consequences of such an innocent approach to something so dangerous. We may find ourselves inspired by the 11-year-old’s passion for pebbles, but we are perturbed when he guards his favorite pebble with such an egocentric ferocity from the curious hands (or even gaze) of like-minded peers. We might marvel at the 14-year-old’s sociability and easiness of laughter, but we are disgusted when we discover that such a virtue has been won at the vicious expense of a less popular kid’s feelings or reputation. From this angle, it seems that the ambiguous qualities of childhood prepare us for—in the starkest or most exaggerated of terms—the moral ambiguities to come. And so it makes perfect sense that we are forever eager to apply its most conspicuous features to our adult-like dilemmas, both as measures of approbation and condemnation.
The choice of “adult-like” over “adult” is deliberate. From where I’m standing, it’s emphatically obvious that the line between childhood and adulthood is less clear-cut than we tell ourselves, and that we retain more of our youthful charms and infelicities than we let on. Given my status as an incorrigibly political soul, I can’t help putting this formulation to work in the context of contemporary politics. For instance, it’s something of a shibboleth that the American right offers us a mature realism that occasionally verges into sadism or nihilism, and that the American left offers us a sprightly idealism that occasionally collapses into a unharnessed or chaotic fantasy. There’s some truth to this. Flagship right-wing publications like National Review or the Weekly Standard no doubt display all the appeal and perversity of a “realist” worldview that flirts—I’d argue more than occasionally—with a politics of glorified cruelty. As I discovered during Occupy and on Social Justice Twitter, not to mention among my more New Age(y) Kumbaya friends, the left is still at once invigorated and hobbled by a detached critical and morally ambitious perch that often tends toward ungrounded policy visions or ill-conceived cultural (especially sexual) priors that inevitably segue into oppressive policing, as well as various forms of escapism or soured defeatism.
And yet, there are so many ways in which this conventional take is dead wrong. Some of the most powerful forces of fantasy and out-of-touch prejudices in American life proceed from the paleoconservative right, the neoconsersative right, and the neoliberal, “centrist” right (that is, the invisible right, but nonetheless the right that is most visible across the corporate-owned media spectrum, from the Washington Post to The New York Times, and from CNN to NPR). At Pat Buchanan’s The American Conservative, for example, one finds precious, if at times admirable, paeans for a lost America bursting forth with vibrant small-scale manufacture, small land ownership, and decentralized freedom. Except grave and systemic racial and gender-based injustices, not to mention stubborn class inequities, are airbrushed out of the nostalgic picture, almost as if by the hands of a clueless toddler. Furthermore, the writers boast a wide-eyed knack for believing that such a (false) utopia can somehow return within the parameters of 21st-century technology and production. The more mainstream right, of the sort found on Fox News or The Daily Caller, is chock-full with the worst excesses of childish ignorance and self-conceit, without hardly any of the redeeming childlike graces found at TAC or other thoughtful right-wing venues like Bleeding Heart Libertarians. In order to take such publications or networks seriously, one must accept a slew of adolescent mythologies, ranging from the efficacy and justice of American military power to the trustworthiness of the national security state to the fairness and efficiency of neoliberal capitalism to the obsessive prizing of “individual responsibility” over all historically informed and structurally-cognizant complications to the contrary. To qualify as a bona fide right-winger in the 21st-century United States, one must leave all adult-like approaches to reality at the door. Only callow patriotic chants, free-market fundamentalist newborn drivel, and a good dollop of teenage bullying antics are welcome.
The neoliberal “center”—what I’d suggest functions as the unacknowledged powerhouse of right-wing (big) business interests, far more so than Koch brother properties—might prove more mature than its field to the right, but not by much. It’s chief puerility arrives in its conviction that an otherwise unsustainable distribution of wealth, opportunity, and privilege, not to mention a complacent attitude toward destructive state and economic policies at home and abroad (both military and ecological), can be papered over by rhetorical niceties, an easy cultural liberalism, and halfhearted policy nods toward the safety net, corporate education reform, market-based environmentalism, and humanitarian intervention. Its much-vaunted progressivism when it comes to questions of race and gender strikes the more in-the-know citizen as equally fantastical… in the most infantile sense of that word.
Meanwhile, the left is not immune to its own variety of childish ugliness in the name of adult-like “realism.” A radical chic fondness for violence still survives the 1960s, however faintly, and as alluded to earlier, its online presence can exude a similar (albeit verbal) tendency for brutal engagement. I can’t say I’m entirely unsympathetic to the source of such anger and conduct, but it’s unfair to imply that such a dynamic can only be spotted elsewhere. The proclivity to replay the cherished or regretful moments of our novice past is universal and inescapable. As a matter of both individual well-being and the overall health of the commonweal, it’s probably wise we spend more time considering the means by which we reenact our most untouched years.